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Tennessee Democrats face House expulsion vote after gun control protest

NASHVILLE, Tennessee, April 6 (Reuters) – Republicans who control the Tennessee House of Representatives voted on Thursday to expel Representative Justin Jones, the first of three Democratic members facing expulsion for their role in a gun control demonstration at the statehouse last week.

But they failed by one vote in a subsequent attempt to remove another representative, Gloria Johnson, who had stood with her colleagues during a demonstration but had not led chanting.

Republican Representatives Andrew Farmer, Gino Bulso, and Bud Hulsey filed three resolutions on Monday to expel their Democratic colleagues and all three resolutions have already passed preliminary votes along party lines.

The body on Thursday voted 72-25 along party lines to oust Jones. The vote to remove Johnson was 65-30, one short of the supermajority needed for her ouster. The vote on Justin Pearson was expected later this evening.

Johnson may have been spared because unlike Jones and Pearson she did not use a megaphone to lead chants during last Thursday’s protest, when hundreds of demonstrators flooded into the statehouse.

That protest came four days after a Nashville school shooting killed three 9-year-old children and three school staff members.

The three Democratic lawmakers led protesters on the House floor to demand stricter gun laws. Republicans in the resolutions calling for their expulsion accused the three of engaging in “disorderly behavior” and said they “did knowingly and intentionally bring disorder and dishonor to the House of Representatives through their individual and collective actions.”

Johnson, Jones and Pearson have said that taking part in the protest was within their First Amendment rights – the constitutional right to freedom of speech. They, along with other Democratic members, also said Thursday that Republican leaders have used their super majority to squelch speech in the chamber, and Johnson said that was one of the reasons they acted as they did last week.

“We’ve got to be allowed to stand up and speak for our constituents and we have to welcome this young generation who might do it little bit differently, but they’re fighting like hell for their constituents,” Johnson told the chamber before the vote in which she was spared expulsion.

Before being ousted, Jones had decried the proceedings.

“What we see here today is a lynch mob assembled not to lynch me but our democratic process,” Jones said.

“At no point was there violence,” Jones added, referring to the demonstration he and his colleagues led on the chamber floor last week. “At no point did we encourage violence. In fact what we were doing was calling for the end of gun violence that is terrorizing our children day after day after day.”

But Bulso, a Republican who authored one of the expulsion resolutions, said it was clear to him that Jones “wants to be expelled.”

“He and two other representatives effectively conducted a mutiny,” Bulso said. “Not to expel him would simply invite him and his colleagues to continue to engage in mutiny on the House floor.”

Race came up several times during the debate. Jones, who is Black, said Bulso, who is white, portrayed him as an “uppity Negro.” Another Republican in the chamber, Sarbjeet Kumar, said Jones saw everything through the lens of race. As the vote was held, Black members and other Democrats joined Jones at the podium. Most Republican members are white, as is Johnson.

Pearson, speaking to reporters outside the House chambers, said the expulsion efforts were examples of white supremacy extinguishing democracy.

“It’s not a coincidence that the two youngest Black representatives and one of the few women have been targeted for expulsion,” he said.

Hundreds of protesters gathered again outside the state house in the rain on Thursday and packed the gallery above the House floor, holding signs in favor of stricter gun control.

During a tense morning session, each time that one of the Democrats targeted for expulsion spoke on various bills, loud cheers could be heard erupting outside the statehouse, echoing in the chamber.

At one point as Pearson was speaking during the session on an unrelated bill, a protester in the gallery dropped a small, white placard reading: “DO SOMETHING.”

Only two Tennessee state representatives have been expelled by their colleagues since the Civil War era: one in 1980 for soliciting a bribe in exchange for blocking legislation and another in 2016 after being accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women. Both expulsions were made with overwhelming, bipartisan votes.

The Democratic Party in Tennessee is raising funds to support special elections for those expelled.

Reporting by Cheney Orr in Nashville and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Donna Bryson, Mark Porter and Diane Craft

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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